Being present is a skill I want to develop because of what it makes available to me. It allows me to experience gratitude, connection and happiness. I came to the realisation that although I was being present some of the time, it was more by accident than design. I don’t want my life to pass me by and so being present is a way that I find I can experience and live it more fully.
There are some moments in my life that happened a long time ago but are still sharp and vivid in my memory. One example is when I was trekking with my housemate in Nepal in 2005. In the September we embarked on a two week trek in the Himalayas to the Annapurna Base Camp. It was one of the most mentally and physically challenging things I have ever done. I was reasonably fit but wholly unprepared for the reality of 6-7 hours trekking each day in mountains at high altitude. After a couple of days the build up of lactic acid in my muscles was excruciating, but there was little option other than to keep going. It became a mental exercise of mind over body. Many times I questioned why I was doing it and started to wish the days away. But then I’d look around me and really see where I was. For me this was a once in a lifetime trip and so I made a point of trying to experience it fully.
The remote beauty of the Himalayas with such vast and varied landscape was breath taking, to put it mildly. One of the most memorable moments for me was once we’d reached the Annapurna Base Camp, at an elevation of 4130 meters. Full from our dinner of dal bhat, the traditional Nepalese dish of boiled rice and lentil soup, my housemate and I left the teahouse to take in our surroundings and look at the night sky. It was cold leaving the gas fire heated room, dark and so very still and quiet. We stood together in silence and looked up at the sky, almost overwhelmed by our achievement so far; we still had the prospect of our descent over the following days. Once my eyes had adjusted I was astounded; I have never seen so many stars in all my life and never imagined that there were so many stars visible from Earth. The sky was white and it was impossible to make out any single constellation. I then started to notice the silent movement of shooting stars whizzing past, and became aware of an unexpected squeaking sound. I couldn’t place the noise at first but then realised it was the enormous glacier stretching up the valley behind us, squeaking as ice pressed and squashed over the rock of the mountain.
Being an observer
That night in Nepal has become an unforgettable and treasured memory which I could have easily missed. I can only recall that experience so vividly because I chose to be present and to fully experience it. Over the past few years I realised that my life had become somewhat of a blur; a haze of days blending into weeks, months and years. All too often I would be distracted by things that had already happened or were likely to happen, which resulted in me not fully engaging with what was going on in that moment. It troubled me, concerned I was missing out or wasting precious time and moments. My life wasn’t boring or meaningless, far from it; it was just that my life was happening around me. Although I was there in body, I was not always there in mind and spirit. I started to feel like I was an observer of my own life.
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
What does being present mean?
To be truly present is to be aware of your thoughts, feelings and surroundings in a non-judgemental way. Being present is basically noticing what you are experiencing in the moment you experience it; being mindful. Mindfulness practices have been around for centuries and there is now a growing body of research to demonstrate the positive impact being present has on health and well being.
Not being present – is it just me?
Being mentally distracted is a common human state. Our brains use past experiences to predict future scenarios, something which helped early humans survive. The success of that is evident because we are here today. It’s very normal behaviour to be thinking either about the past or the future however it is largely unproductive. The only place from which we can influence our past or shape our future is from the present moment, right now.
Being present takes practice and it is a habit I am working on daily to try to establish. Regularly attending Fresh Air Friday sessions supports me to be more present. It is one of the core themes which underpin all the other Fresh Air Friday topics, along with filling yourself up first and gratitude. I started by just noticing my surroundings; what I could see, hear, feel, smell and taste. When my mind wanders I gently bring my focus back to my breathing and my senses. I find that the more I tune into my surroundings, the more I notice. In addition to that I become more aware of my internal senses and emotional landscape. The space of simply noticing how and what I am thinking or feeling, without the pressure to understand, fix or change it, was amazing. Simply letting go of the need to find solutions gave me new perspective and insight.
“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” – Pema Chödrön
If I regularly practice being present I find that I am happier, calmer and more resilient. It’s not difficult and doesn’t take long but it is easy to forget to do. Something I do every morning is to moisturise my face, and I use this daily routine to practice being present. If I do this mindfully in the morning I am generally more present as the day continues; more aware of the world around me. I can trust that I have, and perhaps more importantly can access, all the resources I need when I need them. Discovering I can trust myself has been really empowering. Being present enables me to notice and experience little treasures and gifts in my life, which before I would have overlooked. I have also found that being present creates a pathway to gratitude and connection. This in turn leads to happiness and contentment. If I stop to smell flowers, gaze at clouds, listen to birds, pause, breathe and savour the moment, I feel I am alive and living.
“Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life.” – Buddha